Saturday, September 12, 2015

Headstone Photography: Dos and Don'ts

You're at the cemetery, having finally found the one you were looking for (possibly behind a cul-de-sac of houses, after traipsing through yards, trying to figure out why your GPS led you here). Now that you finally found the cemetery itself, you're on the hunt for the gravestone you want. It has to be here.

But many of the gravestones are so weathered, it looks as if the engravings have worn down to point where all you have are stone slabs sticking up from the ground. Is that a 4 or a 9? Was that person 32 or 82 when they died?

There are many techniques for making the information on a headstone stand out. Unfortunately, some of them are outdated and detrimental to the stones themselves.


For a very long time, using chalk was a popular method for making a gravestone readable. However, chalk is abrasive, and can also stain the stones. Other methods, such as using flour or shaving cream to make the engraving stand out, are just as dangerous. Flour can seep into the pores of the stone and contribute to flaking, expansion, and cracking. The chemicals in shaving cream will ultimately cause the deterioration of the stone.

In fact, you shouldn't use any food items, beauty items, writing implements, paints, abrasives, or cleaners on a gravestone. So what can you do to make the engraving stand out for reading, transcribing, or photographing?


First, try the most basic substance of all - water. Spraying a headstone with water may darken the engravings so that you can read and photograph them. Later on, you can use a photo editing program to enhance the image.

A method I like to use when I make a spontaneous stop at a cemetery is simply tracing with my fingers. Running my fingertips over the engravings usually helps me determine the difference between similar looking numbers or letters.

Sometimes, it's a simple matter of redirecting the light to reflect off the engraving. However, since not everyone drives around with a large mirror in their car, there is another way to read gravestones that can save space and allow you to get a detailed photograph - aluminum foil. Simply press the foil against the headstone and use a wet sponge to rub it. The imprint won't last, so this is your opportunity to take a photograph (probably of the stone both with and without the foil is best) for posterity.

I'd love to know about your successes with these safe techniques for headstone photography, especially if you've used the foil method! 

Headstone Photography: Dos & Don'ts

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

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